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The Arsenal Monday verdict: Disappointing, but not disastrous

Santi Cazorla looks an astute signing from Arsene Wenger, impressing in the advanced central midfield position behind Lukas Podolski on Saturday. Photo: Jon Buckle/PA Santi Cazorla looks an astute signing from Arsene Wenger, impressing in the advanced central midfield position behind Lukas Podolski on Saturday. Photo: Jon Buckle/PA

Monday, August 20, 2012
10:26 AM

The new signings will take time to settle in, but time is in short supply. It’s Stoke away next

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As far as opening days go, there’s no doubt that Saturday was a fairly underwhelming experience for Arsenal fans.

They came in bright sunshine and full of optimism despite another tumultuous week in the history of the club that had ended with the stomach-churning sight of Robin van Persie sharing jokes and smiles with Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United’s training ground.

Rumours of Alex Song’s departure to the Nou Camp had also materialised into fact by the time the players arrived to face Sunderland, and while Arsenal are suddenly £39million richer in their bank account, on the pitch they look an awful lot poorer given the loss of those two players inside 48 hours.

Loyalty, it seems, is purely restricted to the supporters these days, but the whiff of crisis around the Emirates had created an almost siege-like mentality. No player is bigger than the club. We’ll get over it. We’ll show you, seemed to be the general mood around kick-off time.

Which is why the 90 minutes that followed were so disappointing. Disappointing, but certainly not disastrous. When you consider that in Van Persie, Song and the injured Laurent Koscielny the Gunners were probably without their three most influential players from last season, this was never going to be a walk in the park.

But Arsenal were dominant on Saturday. Sunderland flickered as an attacking force in the first half and forced a couple of decent saves from Wojciech Szczesny, but by half-time they had faded and in the second half survival was their only goal.

Arsenal’s only goal was a goal, but it eluded them on this occasion. Plenty of chances were created, but the lack of sharpness that can often afflict teams on the opening day was evident. Nobody was quite clinical enough to provide the killer touch, in the way that Van Persie always was, for the last 18 months, at least.

It was easy for supporters to point to his absence and moan skywards, but there were positives for Arsenal from the opening game, even if they did fire blanks on the day.

Santi Cazorla looks an excellent signing. A bundle of energy from first minute to last, the little No19. has the skill, touch and vision we have come to expect from all Spanish footballers.

Given that this was his debut, and after just 45 minutes of pre-season friendly action alongside his new team-mates, his display was hugely impressive.

It was hard not to reflect that he would have been an ideal addition this time last year, when the Gunners were reeling from the loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.

Cazorla has traits of both those players, an eye for the slide-rule pass so often seen from Fabregas that on Saturday was not converted by Olivier Giroud, and the appetite for possession and quick and skilful feet that often helped Nasri unlock massed defences while he was playing in red and white.

It is too early to expect the likes of Cazorla and Lukas Podolski, who endured a far less influential debut, to gel with each other and their team-mates, but there were encouraging signs.

Whether or not Podolski is suited to the role of being the spearhead of the attack is up for debate. There were many that felt he would be given one of the wide attacking roles after signing in May, but the German has since made it clear he sees himself as a central, lone striker, and with Van Persie gone, that is what he will get the chance to be.

The physique and style of Giroud suggests he is better suited to that role, but Arsene Wenger won’t mind having those kind of decisions to make. Last season, there simply was no other choice than Van Persie. It was a dangerous game to play and only came off when the Dutchman had his first complete season in seven.

There will be many wishing ill-fortune on the former captain if and when he makes his debut for Manchester United on Monday night, but Wenger will not be among them.

He has borne what must be a crushing disappointment with stoical grace over the weekend, and you almost sense he may enjoy the chance to prove all his and Arsenal’s doubters wrong again.

To do that, his other midfielders will have to play better than they did on Saturday. Theo Walcott was becalmed on the right, while Gervinho was his usual frenetic but fruitless self on the left and Abou Diaby was almost anonymous behind them alongside Mikel Arteta.

The amount of faith Wenger has shown in Diaby over the past six years has been remarkable, and if the manager has earmarked him to take over from Song then he will know that the Frenchman must be more influential than he was on Saturday.

Song’s exit was swift and mysterious, the move seemingly going from fantasy to fact in the blink of an eye. Clearly the Cameroonian has fallen out with Wenger and perhaps others at the club, although the fact that his agent is Darren Dein, the son of former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, could also have been a factor.

Song was not out of contract, but Arsenal made clear on Saturday evening it was a ‘club decision’ not the player’s decision to complete the switch, which only added to the feeling that he has been moved on for non-footballing reasons.

Whatever the reason, Arsenal have lost another big player. Song was vital last season and not just for his defensive work, without which the Gunners probably wouldn’t have recovered to reach third place. He provided much-needed muscle in midfield and it is hard to see who Wenger thinks will replicate that.

Nuri Sahin, the Turkey international, looks set to complete his loan move from Real Madrid this week and will come into contention in that area, while Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will also press their claims. Arsenal could have done with the latter’s attacking purpose on Saturday.

As it was, they had to settle for a point. Drawing your opening game can never really be a disaster, and the likes of QPR and Liverpool would gladly accept a goalless draw on the opening day rather than the pummelling they experienced.

But the first day can often throw up results like that, and often it signifies little. What is beyond doubt, however, is that Arsenal’s next two games look a lot harder, with this Sunday’s visit to Stoke followed a week later by a trip to Anfield.

Last season the Gunners drew 0-0 at Newcastle on the opening day, but were then beaten by Liverpool and then humiliated by Manchester United to end up with one point from the opening three games, a position from which it took them most of the season to recover.

That should not happen again, and the Gunners looked robust and organised in defence on Saturday despite the absence of Koscielny and Bacary Sagna. But they need to raise it a notch now, starting at the Britannia on Sunday, where anything less than full commitment will always be exposed.

What Wenger and the new arrivals need is time to settle in, but patience is a commodity in short supply in the Premier League these days, as Brendan Rodgers and a few others will find out in the coming weeks.

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